Back to Black (and white)

For the past 16 years I’ve shot exclusively digital images for my clients which is brilliant for client work.

Deadlines have reached a stage where pictures are sometimes needed for social media even before an event has finished, and even for more polished work the turnaround required often needs to be pretty rapid. It’s also fair to say that on a purely technical level, digital has matched or exceeded that which was ever possible with film.

And of course I can do so much more with digital than I ever could with film, but whatever my medium I work hard to keep things “honest”. I don’t use filters or add grain to my digital images. My style is in the lighting, composition and final presentation of my work. Anything else risks dishonesty in my view, and even when I’ve shot digital and converted to black and white, it’s not the same as shooting a black and white original.

Ah, but film. I spent the first 13 years of my career shooting film; the first couple of years shooting only black and white. In recent years I’ve had a real itch to get back to film one way or another. I doubt I will ever have another client request that I shoot film, though I’d be delighted if the opportunity arose, so it has to be a self-motivated project.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago I could take it no more. I started to research what I needed. I still had my old film processing tanks, measures, thermometer and bits and pieces, so just needed film and chemicals to get started again.

To be fair, it had been so long that I had to remind myself of exactly what was required – vague memories of Ilford ID-11, stop bath, fixer were all very well, but I needed to refresh my memory of the specifics. As an initial competency test I found an out-of-date roll of colour film that had been languishing in the back of my fridge which I sacrificed to practicing loading film onto a spool in the dark bag. It all came back like I’d never stopped, so that was a good start.

Of course film is no good without a camera. I still have my Canon EOS 1N which must be 20 years old, but works with all my current lenses so I dusted that off, popped a new battery in and it still works perfectly. I confess I spent a while lusting over old Nikon and Leica mechanical SLR cameras on eBay, but collectors have turned these into objects of fetish obsession and the prices are ridiculous for anything which hasn’t been dropped in salt water or run over by a bus.

The EOS 1N isn’t a “refined” camera, but it’s solid and dependable and I could spend £450.00 on an old, mechanical Nikon (not including a lens) or replace mine (if it ever dies) for about £90.00 because it doesn’t look cool and retro enough for collectors to lust after it.

Now this is the point at which I’m going to tease you to death because I have already shot and processed my first two rolls of Kodak Tri-X film, but they’re not yet digitised (oh the irony) for display here. Looking at them on my old Cabin light panel they look pretty damn lovely. Film really does have something digital lacks; the difference is greater than that between vinyl and mp3s in the music world and it’s just a shame that short of mounting an exhibition there’s no getting away from digital if I want anyone to see the photos. I guess I’ll just have to mount an exhibition then.

Seriously though, in an ideal world I would get myself into a darkroom with a Durst enlarger with a Schneider Kreuznach lens and make beautiful prints on fibre-based paper, but if I can manage that ever at all it’s unlikely to be in the next few weeks. In the meantime I’m working out a system for achieving the best possible digital versions of the negatives.

When that’s done, I’ll definitely update you with images here. I honestly can’t wait. It’ll be interesting to see if the conversion to digital retains any of the character of the film. I do hope so!

First sight of new site

The launch of a new website really isn’t the sort of thing that excites interest anymore, but since I’ve just given mine a jolly good wash and brush-up I thought I’d say a little bit about the thinking behind some of my design decisions.

You’ve probably already forgotten what the previous site looked like, which is fine – I can’t remember what my local high street looked like when Woolworths was still there. That’s human nature, nothing personal, but just to say it was designed to be light, inviting and easy to navigate. In this regard it worked pretty well, but was starting to look a little small on a larger screen.

Screen size was also a consideration back when the previous site was being planned because one of my demands at the time was for it to be responsive (it would work on everything from a desktop screen to a mobile phone) and in that regard it was ahead of the game. But time and websites stand still for no person, and earlier this year (quite a bit earlier as it happens) I embarked on the design of my new site, the fourth version since 2004.

I’ve kept the ethos of “light, inviting and easy to navigate” and pushed that a little further by having portfolio previews on the home page instead of having them only available via a Portfolio link or a drop-down menu. So now from the home page it’s easy to click straight to the gallery you want to see (Business Portraits, Corporate Communications or Editorial & PR as well as three galleries linking to personal work).

The next decision was a tougher one; whether to have full-bleed images which filled each page, or the lightbox gallery style I’ve gone for. There are many website templates for photographers that really push the full-bleed, but these are really only any good if you take exclusively landscape-oriented photos. I do so many portraits and photos in portrait orientation I would struggle to make that design work. So I still have image previews which click to enlarge the image to best suit its orientation.

I won’t list all the changes and their benefits here, but the one thing I was determined to crack was image quality.

Often a website template won’t show the images to their best because of the way image files are crunched in the back-end of the system. It’s easy to upload huge image files and let WordPress (my platform of choice) make the decisions and calculations to display the images within the page, but I found it far better to upload the images at the size they would display so the system wouldn’t re-crunch the image data and make them look soft. I want my images to appear crisp because it’s easy to hide slightly soft photos behind a wall of compression. I want potential clients to see the quality of my work.

While writing this article I did a little internet parlour trick using Wayback Machine and found my original website from 2004. Apart from the odd missing image, it’s still there in all its teeny tiny glory. There’s just a screenshot in the gallery below, but you’ll get a sense of how primitive it was.

Now I’m not going to kid myself that this new site is the best photography website ever, but I’ve looked at dozens of photographers’ sites and concluded that the perfect website doesn’t exist. At the very least though I now have a site which I can adapt, change, tweak and improve as required.

All I can say is, I’ve worked very hard to make this site as helpful, useful and engaging as possible. Only time will tell if I’ve succeeded, but feel free to comment below, I’ll consider all feedback.

Time for an Update

After a bit of a Summer blogging break which included getting married, selling a house, shooting client jobs, finalising my annual accounts and finding a little time to wind down, I thought it high time I blogged again.

In amongst all the Summer plans I’ve also been busy behind the scenes redesigning my website, a process which I have to say I find painful and satisfying in equal measure. The current site is a few years old now, and while it’s served its purpose (it was responsive before most photographers had heard of responsive), it’s been looking dated for some time now.

The new site is almost almost ready. I won’t give too much away at this stage, but the plan is to have a site which really displays the technical quality of my work the best way possible without overwhelming the visitor with huge, slow-loading images. It also needs to remain easy to navigate, ensuring the shortest possible journey between landing on the Home page and getting to the portfolio or page the visitor is most interested in.

Having taken a fair bit of time to look at other photographers’ sites and work out what I do and don’t like, I’m eschewing whistles and bells. I still want a site which loads quickly, and only uses the design features necessary to guide the user to where they want to go.

One feature which is very popular now is the use of full-screen images which dominate the entire page. This is all fine and dandy, but requires that all the images be landscape-oriented (which isn’t much use when you shoot as many portraits as I do) and often leads to menu text getting lost against the image, which makes navigation incredibly difficult.

So keep an eye out over the next week or so when I hope to be able to set the new site to go live. I don’t tend to think of a new website as a particularly big event, but it’ll be helpful to get some feedback from my blog readers who will also see some slight changes in how the blog looks.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with my favourite honeymoon break photo. Ahhhh.